The Buddhist concept of “upaya,” expedient or skillful means, arose around the dawn of the common era – about 2,000 years ago. It emphasizes that even if we possess wisdom, when we want to share it with other beings and help them, it’s not so easy to do so. We need to be patient, creative, and compassionate so they will be able to hear, accept, and act on what we have to share. The Lotus Sutra, written about 2000 years ago, describes six things to consider when we’re trying to get our message across, and suggests the best ways to proceed.
Note: I focus, here, on how to share wisdom with others for the benefit of all. I’m skipping over the issues of how to ascertain truth for yourself, holding that truth with humility, making sure you’re not actually being self-serving as you set about trying to change others, and setting aside your own defensiveness and pettiness when you do so. Those are huge issues and I don’t mean to imply we can just skip over them! However, I want to spend some time talking about what to do when you’ve done your inner work and sincerely feel called to help others.
Even the Buddha Knew Teaching Was Hard
From the beginning of Buddhism, it’s been acknowledged it’s a daunting task to communicate deeper spiritual truths and get human beings to let go of their greed, hate, and delusion. It’s said the Buddha himself, after achieving enlightenment, strongly considered never bothering to try teaching anyone what he had discovered.[i] He was convinced few people would even want to hear about it, let alone be able to accept or understand it, so he figured he’d just enjoy the peace of enlightenment by himself. According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha thought:
“Enough now with teaching what
only with difficulty
This Dhamma is not easily realized
by those overcome
with aversion & passion.
What is abstruse, subtle,
deep, hard to see,
going against the flow —
those delighting in passion,
cloaked in the mass of darkness,
Fortunately for us, the gods pleaded with the Buddha to try teaching anyway, out of compassion, assuring him there would be at least a few people who would understand.
The Buddha was very wise in his anticipation that it wouldn’t be easy to teach people about his spiritual practice and insight. Many of us are more confident than he was, and deluded; we’re sure that if we just repeat what we know to be true often enough, we’ll get through to people.
How rarely does this work! We point out what’s true to our children, friends, co-workers, partners, students, and fellow citizens. It’s good to exercise. It’s bad to smoke. If you stay up too late, you’ll be too tired to do well at school or your job. If we keep burning fossil fuels, global warming will threaten the existence of life on this planet. 9-11 was not a hoax. Working on yourself through spiritual practice is beneficial for the other people in your life. If you mess with opioids, you risk flushing your life down the toilet.
We keep telling them, but do they listen? If they listen, do they actually change their minds? If they change their minds, do they actually change their behavior?
Faced with such apparent limitations in our ability to help others see the truth, some of us just give up and shut up. Others of us feel compelled to “speak our truth no matter what,” but generally just get louder and more impassioned without improved results. When we aggressively debate others or declare their ignorance, they just get even more entrenched in their positions and behavior (as we tend to do if someone tries to tell us we’re wrong).
Things to Consider When Trying to Get People to Change
The Buddhist concept of skillful means addresses the difficulty of translating our wisdom and good intentions into beneficial results. In essence, it says that in order to help people change for the better, you need to take a lot of things into account:
- Can they even hear you? There are a whole host of reasons people might be completely oblivious to your message. What might get through to them, and wake them up?
- If they hear you, are they ready to listen and accept what you’re trying to say? If not, is there anything you can do to make them more receptive?
- Even if they’re willing to listen and accept, do they get it? Can you summon the necessary patience to respond without judgment, and do your best to help others understand – perhaps using language or imagery they’re familiar with, or breaking the overall message down into digestible parts? Can you keep offering what you’re trying to share, in the hopes that some amount of it will be absorbed?
- If you can’t get people moving toward the ultimate goal of “A,” can you describe a different goal, “B,” that lies in the same general direction but inspires your audience? This can feel a little deceptive, but if there’s no good alternative and you sincerely have people’s best interests in mind, is there a creative way to bring about beneficial consequences for all?
- Once people get it and are on board, how much change are they capable of at this time? How can you support them and encourage them to keep moving toward a larger transformation?
- If people respond to your efforts by attacking you, can you see this as arising from their own insecurities and avoid taking it personally? How can you sustain your aspiration to help them anyway?
This list of considerations may seem pretty modern, like they’re part of a new communication strategy your boss is going to ask you to implement at work, or somewhat annoying advice from a family therapist. However, apparently people weren’t that different 2,000 years ago, because this list of things to consider when you’re hoping to get people to do something different comes – more or less – from the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra is one of the earliest Mahayana Buddhist texts, composed somewhere between 100 BCE and 100 CE.
What to Do When People Can’t Even Hear You
What about when you have someone’s best interests in mind and are trying communicate to them – verbally or otherwise – a way toward positive change, and they can’t even hear you? (I’ll use the term “hear” in this discussion to mean “perceive,” even though there are many ways to share wisdom besides verbally.) Sometimes people are so caught up in their activities, distractions, views, or addictions, your message, so to speak, “falls on deaf ears.” For one reason or another, the people you care about are completely oblivious to what you’re trying to share.
In the Lotus Sutra, this kind of scenario is illustrated by a parable about a physician with many children. One day, the children drink poison. Because of the poison, some of the children are delirious and refuse to take the antidote their father has prepared. Desperate to save his them, the physician leaves and then sends word back home that he has died. The children are very distressed and feel orphaned. The sutra says, “This continuous grief brings them to their senses,”[i] so they take the antidote and are saved. Joyous, the father returns home.
In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha then asks his disciples whether the physician in this parable was guilty of lying. The disciples say “no” and the Buddha explains that when the power of skillful means is used for the sake of living beings, one isn’t guilty of lying because one is “taking the circumstances into account.” In other words, lying is still against the moral precepts, but it’s acceptable – or even important – to lie, on occasion, for compassionate reasons. If the father in the parable had refrained from lying, his children would have died, and he would be guilty of safeguarding his own moral purity instead of doing something to benefit others.
Now, we don’t need to interpret this Lotus Sutra parable in a limited way, as being only about lying to get people to listen to us. Instead, look at lying as an example of just one kind of unusual, provocative, controversial, or somewhat risky action you might take in extenuating circumstances in order to get people to wake up and listen. Other kinds of wake-up-and-listen kinds of actions might be protests, artistic endeavors, or impassioned speeches. In our personal lives, it might be participating in an addiction intervention, or dramatically altering the dynamics of our relationship with someone. The possibilities are endless… but it does seem that Buddhism is encouraging us not to give up when people don’t hear us. Instead, it points us toward skillful means: What’s actually going to work? When we turn our creativity toward the problem, what ways could we get our message heard while maintaining a sincere desire to benefit others?
Reeves, Gene (translator). The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008.
[i] Reeves pg. 295 (Chp. 16: The Lifetime of the Tathagatha)
[i] See Episode 12 – Buddhist History 4: Life of Shakyamuni Buddha Part 2 – Before and After Enlightenment
[ii] “Ayacana Sutta: The Request” (SN 6.1), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn06/sn06.001.than.html.